The Three Adults

For some time now, many modern adolescents have had three types of adult connections in their lives – parents; teachers; and a coach, director, or mentor of some sort. In my experience growing up, I would have called those three connections ‘Authorities,’ and, in general, all three were on the same page on most issues that related my adolescent freedoms and development. Today, I am witnessing a shift among the connections my students have (even in just the last 6 years) – not so much a shift in who the connections are with, but in how the relationship plays out.

I hope that by the end of this article you will see that this is not a lament about the way things used to be; it is a plea to understand shifting social dynamics in an increasingly complex world so that we may place them into context and determine an honest and compassionate path forward. In fact, ‘the way things used to be,’ also won’t be my suggestion for a new age.

I also hope that you will understand that when I discuss this ‘shifting trend,’ so clearly meaning that a temporal shift is taking place, I am generalizing quite heavily. Our nation has always been intended to be a heterogeneous ‘mixing bowl’ of opinions and ideas, and should you travel around the country to different communities, you will find that, of course, these trends also exist spatially; thus, the point of this article is not so much to say that your community will be experiencing the same phenomenon as mine, but a call to action to analyze where on the spectrum henceforth described your community is, and to be able to take appropriate positive actions accordingly.

The shifting trend that I want to highlight is this: the ‘three authorities’ of my adolescence seemed to always ‘be on the same page.’ That page read “your son/student/player is a beautiful, growing, very stupid and lacking experience human who needs to be pushed to undergo challenging experiences and produce high-quality products through effort, even when he doesn’t want to put forth that effort. He is not always right or honest, and he is always loving, even when he expresses the opposite outwardly.” The most influential teacher in my life was also the teacher that made me cry once-a-week during my freshman year, who I never connected with and who I ‘most hated’ in the midsts of my teenage angst, and whom my beloved mother sided with when push came to shove and I said I couldn’t do it and needed to switch out of her class. She – Ms. Carney – changed my life for the better by teaching me to express complex thoughts and emotion through the use of variable sentence structure and diction.

Today, some of the three adult connections (notice the changed word) in the community I am currently working with seem to be just that – connections rather than authorities, and not all three of the connections are on the same page. There are a couple of potential explanations for this trend, including the shifting dynamics of culture – more parents who were brought up in an authoritative family now want to be ‘friends’ with the kids they are bringing up – and that we try to take the path of least resistance in many of our challenging interactions.

As an example, I had a student a few years ago who had a parent who, while not wanting (completely) to be her daughter’s friend, certainly wanted to give her tons of positive reinforcement and love, as well as avoid uncomfortable situations. The student, Cassie, also had a yoga teacher who loved her. At school, her teachers (myself included) of course loved her also, but would continuously push her (as we pushed all students) to improve in various aspects of her life. Now, it is incredibly important for students to have an adult in their lives who they feel cares about them – more important as a predictor of success, in fact, than GPA, as found by some of the Gallup Studies. However, in Cassie’s case, the result was that when she came to school, her thinking (as I interpreted it from her conversations with me and her actions) was ‘this is the only place I experience in my life that doesn’t validate me and tell me that I’m great for who I am and that I have nothing to work on.’ The result was that in her Senior year, she ended up isolating every adult in the building in harsh and incredibly offensive ways as retribution for telling her she still has things to learn and room to grow. Cassie had become ‘entitled.’ And as Mark Manson describes, because entitled people believe they deserve to feel good all the time, they will do anything to get that feel-good emotion – including hurt other people. “People who feel entitled view every occurrence in their life as either an affirmation of, or a threat to, their own greatness,” Manson wrote. So here we arrive at a nuance. Adolescents need to feel that an adult thinks they are great and care about them, but that same love and care, applied without reading the warning labels (oh, if only), leads to quite an unpleasant life.

So here’s the thing: Cassie’s yoga teacher’s beliefs are not wrong. Let’s try to capture them: ‘in today’s world, people have problems (perhaps more than ever before, though also different than ever before) and that for adolescents, nobody is validating those problems, listening to them, and telling them they are still great people despite their problems. Instead, everybody wants to just listen to the first sentence and say ‘oh, here’s how you fix that.’ or ‘oh, you are just making a mountain out of a molehill because you’re an adolescent.’ Cassie’s yoga teacher is not wrong – this does happen!

However, simply validating those problems and telling adolescents (or people at all) that they are still great despite them is not the most effective practice, as it can (and in this case did) lead to entitlement. On the other hand, the reason Cassie’s yoga teacher believes what she does is because the Authoritative approach that she grew up with also has its drawbacks – specifically that students can develop anxiety and a fear of failure upon entering a classroom or work environment that has a different approach. Thus, it’s important to get the three adult connections in a student’s life to coordinate in their approaches, and not just any approach at that!

Because I am an educator and this is an educational blog, it seems to me that the task of unifying the three adult connections ultimately falls upon the teacher. There is no required Handbook or Manual given to parents upon the birth of their first child, and accordingly, parental knowledge exists on a broad spectrum. The teacher’s task, then, is to help to inform parents of the method that you are using and to try to get their support. Luckily, the technique for doing this turns out to be the same as the one I suggest using with the students. We’ll dive into the specifics of this technique in next week’s post, as it deserves its own full segment – for now, analyze your own student community. Are the three adult connections generally aligned in thinking, or are imbalances in the approaches causing anxiety and fear of failure, entitlement, or other psychopathologies? Most importantly, could you help out to restore balance?

Brown, Brene. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Manson, Mark. (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuative Approach to Living a Good Life. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups : the three things you must do to help your child or teen become a fulfilled adult. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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